PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

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The Washington Capitals didn’t make the biggest moves ahead of the NHL trade deadline, but they may have made the right moves.

Adding Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin helped shore up what has been at times a shaky defensive team this season and has helped propel them back to the top of the Metropolitan Division with what is, as of Monday, a four-point lead over the New York Islanders.

They have not lost since the trade deadline, are on a seven-game winning streak, and have won nine of their past 10 games overall.

It is not just the winning that is encouraging for the Capitals this time of year that matters, it is also the way they are winning.

They are dominating.

In six games since the trade deadline the Capitals are rolling along with a 58.1 Corsi percentage (tops in the NHL), have controlled more than 56 percent of the scoring chances at even-strength (also tops in the NHL), and have outscored teams by a 24-10 margin. No, they have not really played a collection of the league’s strongest teams since then, but you can only play the team that is lined up across from you and if you are a true contender you are supposed to dominate the lower-tier teams. The Capitals have been doing all of that and more.

With the superstar talent they still have throughout the lineup playing the way it is (Alex Ovechkin might score 55 goals as a 33-year-old!), a goalie that is capable of getting hot and carrying the team at any time, and the necessary tweaks made at the trade deadline they are going to have a real shot to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

They make the top-four in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else fit?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Not even sure they have played their best hockey as of late and they are still 13-2-0 over their past 15 games entering the week. The numbers around this team, and their top player Nikita Kucherov, are just comical.

2. Boston Bruins — Depth was always a concern, and it seemed like it was going to be a big issue as even more injuries started to mount, but they just keep on winning, collecting points, and very quietly have the second best record in the NHL. Maybe Bruce Cassidy should be in that coach of the year discussion, too?

3. San Jose Sharks — Even without Erik Karlsson or above average goaltending they just keep on rolling. This is going to be a scary team if Martin Jones is even average for them in the playoffs.

[Related: Erik Karlsson expects to be ready for playoffs]

4. Washington Capitals — Do not count them out.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs — The NHL’s playoff format has been the same for several years now, and every year a couple of top-five teams meet in the first or second round and one of them gets sent home earlier than maybe they otherwise deserve. Is it ideal? No. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Has there been any kind of a huge push to change it? A little but, but nothing fierce enough to make it happen. But if Toronto gets bounced in the first round to Boston again? Oh man, you can be sure there will be a lot more noise about it.

6. Calgary Flames — The Sharks and the Flames might be the two best teams in the Western Conference and they might have the shakiest goaltending situation of any team that makes the playoffs.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby has played his way back into the MVP discussion. He is probably not going to win it over Kucherov, but he should at least be a finalist with the way he has dominated this season. Especially over the past few weeks.

8. Winnipeg Jets — Been saying this for a while now, but the play on the ice does not seem to match the record. This team has more to offer.

9. New York Islanders — Everything about the way they have actually played this season has pointed to an eventual regression.  Not saying it is definitely happening now, but only four wins in their previous 10 games is not ideal, especially at this time of year.

10. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not even a lock to make the playoffs, but you have to love the way they are playing right now with a 22-7-1 record since Dec. 31. They are young, fast, fun, and could prove to be a real headache … if they get in.

11. St. Louis Blues — Jordan Binnington has been a season saver, but the injury situation is becoming worrisome, especially with Vladimir Tarasenko now sidelined.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — Mark Stone has been a huge addition but they will only go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury will allow them to go. His boom-or-bust season makes them a total wild card in the West.

[Related: Fleury’s boom-or-bust season makes Golden Knights total wild card]

13. Nashville Predators — As of Monday they have not won a game in regulation or overtime since Feb. 21. Their only three wins during that stretch all came in a shootout. Not exactly the sign of a team that is playing great, and kind of underwhelming (at least for now) after their big trade deadline additions.

14. Minnesota Wild — A truly bizarre season in Minnesota. It would be an amazing story if they ended up making the playoffs after going into a sellers mode at the trade deadline. Before their ugly loss to Florida over the weekend (the second half of a back-to-back) they had collected at least a point in eight consecutive games.

15. Arizona Coyotes — If this team ends up making the playoffs it might be enough for Rick Tocchet to take the Jack Adams Award away from Barry Trotz.

16. Dallas Stars — Ben Bishop is quietly putting together a pretty dominant season for the Stars with a .930 save percentage, good enough for second best in the league just behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets — I had high expectations for this team after the trade deadline but, as of now, things have not gone according to plan. At all. Their remaining schedule is also pretty tough with a couple of sets of back-to-backs, three games against Boston and then two more against the Predators.

18. Montreal Canadiens — The Canadiens have had some brutal late-season collapses in recent years, and with only five wins in their past 14 games it is worth wondering if it might be happening again.

19. Philadelphia Flyers — Their record under Scott Gordon has been good, but I’m not sure how much that has to do with him and how much of it has to do with the goaltending situation finally getting secured with Carter Hart.

[Related: Has Scott Gordon done enough to keep Flyers’ Job?]

20. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Gabriel Landeskog might be the breaking point for a team that has badly faded after a great start to the season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — I know you can’t just take away a 10-game winning streak, but that streak was always a fluke and their entire season outside of that has simply been more of the same old Sabres.

22. Chicago Blackhawks — They still have the forwards to compete, but the defense is as bad as we have seen in the NHL in more than a decade.

23. Edmonton Oilers — They did win four games in a row, but three of those wins came against Ottawa, Buffalo, and Vancouver. They are in the process of not only wasting what will probably be a 110-point season from Connor McDavid, but what might be a 50-goal season from Leon Draisaitl. Truly stunning numbers.

24. Anaheim Ducks — Hopefully getting a chance to see his team from behind the bench will tell Bob Murray just how mediocre the whole thing has become and get him to make the necessary changes this summer.

25. Florida Panthers — They have had 22 games (pretty much one third of their schedule) go to overtime or a shootout this season, which is just an insane number. That is really no way to be a competitive team on a consistent basis with so many of your games basically coming down to a coin flip.

26. New York Rangers — They only have two wins since Feb. 20, both of them coming against a Devils team that can barely put a full roster on the ice right now.

27. Vancouver Canucks — Remember when the Canucks seemed to be “ahead of schedule” in their rebuild? They might win 33 or 34 games this season instead of the 30 or 31 they have been winning the past few years, and they still have the fewest wins in the NHL since the start of the 2015-16 season (excluding Vegas, who is only in its second season). Even worse, they are once again in a position where their odds of landing the top pick in the draft are not all that high.

28. New Jersey Devils — Injuries and trades have just decimated this roster to the point where it barely resembles an NHL team right now.

29. Detroit Red Wings — Probably the best thing that has happened over the past few weeks is getting their first glimpse at first-round draft pick Filip Zadina, who scored his first NHL goal. His development will play a big role in where this rebuild goes.

30. Los Angeles Kings — There can be no shortcuts or quick fixes here, they need a massive overhaul this offseason because this roster as currently constructed does not really have anything going for it.

31. Ottawa Senators — All of this losing is a big win for the Avalanche, who own their 2019 first-round draft pick.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Game 7 history for Ovechkin, Capitals

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Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs ends on Wednesday with the Washington Capitals hosting the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Stream here).

This series has already been a study in contrasts, and the “old vs. new” storyline really pops when you consider the Game 7 experience of both teams.

While the Hurricanes employ “Mr. Game 7” Justin Williams (a nickname that makes him grit his teeth, apparently), the team as a whole is mostly new to this. It says a lot, really, that current Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour was the team’s captain in 2008-09, which was the last time the Hurricanes a) made a playoff run and b) played in Game 7s.

While the Hurricanes recently broke a decade-long playoff drought, the Capitals have only missed the playoffs once (2013-14) since 2007-08, so if you want to get cute about it, this is almost the matchup of “Mr. Game 7 vs. Team Game 7s.”

Well, the Capitals are team Game 7s by volume, more than overall success. Now that we’ve acknowledged Justin Williams as Our Elimination Overlord, and recall that Jordan Staal‘s been here before – albeit a long time ago – let’s consider the Capitals’ recent history in these deciding games, with copious assistance from the all-around wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.com.

2008 

April 22, first round: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT) 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nicklas Backstrom was on one of his hotter sniping runs then, as he is now, as the Swede scored his fourth goal of that postseason in this defeat. Alex Ovechkin got a goal and a primary assist, authoring the first chapter in his anthology of being scapegoated despite strong playoff play. Ovechkin finished the 2008 run with four goals and five assists for nine points in seven playoff games; so far during this 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ovechkin has four goals and four assists for eight points in six contests.

Joffrey Lupul ended up scoring the overtime-clincher in that long-ago Game 7.

2009

April 28, first round: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

Some early evidence that Washington was able to grind out ugly, playoff-style wins, even then. While Backstrom nabbed an assist, this win was heavy on old names. Semyon Varlamov was only tasked with making 14 saves. Alexander Semin was a goal scorer and so was … Sergei Fedorov. Yes, in case you forgot, Fedorov briefly played for the Capitals.

May 13, second round: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

For some Caps fans, there are still scars from this loss.

After this series lived up to the hype for six games (remember dueling hat tricks between Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin?), the Game 7 match was mostly anticlimactic. Ovechkin had tormented Marc-Andre Fleury for much of that Round 2, yet MAF made a huge save early, and the Penguins scored the game’s first five goals to win handily. Ovechkin managed his 11th goal of that playoff run, but absorbed one of his earliest rounds of excessive playoff blame.

2010

April 28, first round: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

Speaking of scarring moments …

The Capitals were a buzzsaw in 2009-10, until they ran into Jaroslav Halak, who enjoyed a spectacular run where he confounded both the Caps and the Penguins. Washington generated a gaudy 42-16 SOG advantage in this Game 7, yet the Habs completed their upset win thanks largely to Halak playing out of his mind.

It felt like Michael Cammalleri scored every Montreal goal during their run, but it was Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore who scored in this Game 7. Ovechkin settled for an assist despite firing 10 of those 42 SOG.

This was the first Capitals Game 7 of the PHT era, so check out Ovechkin taking responsibility for his struggles.

2012

April 25, first round: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

The Dale Hunter era was brief in Washington, and honestly … mercifully so. Those Capitals series were tough to watch, what with Ovechkin receiving reduced ice time, although it helped Braden Holtby write the first bullet points in what’s becoming an impressive playoff resume.

May 12, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

Henrik Lundqvist got the best of Holtby and the Capitals in a close, clogged-up Game 7. Luckily, Barry Trotz helped the Capitals find a better balance between playing snug defense and still accentuating their offensive strengths, because the Hunter era was not pretty.

2013

May 13, first round: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

The Penguins rank as the Capitals’ biggest historic nuisance, but Henrik Lundqvist must come in a respectable second place, right? Lundqvist pitched a Game 7 shutout, prompting Backstrom to play into narrative hands by discussing the Capitals “learning to win in the playoffs.”

2015

April 27, first round: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s had some time to perfect celebrations in big situations.

He’s really added that extra skilled player to the Capitals’ mix (along with T.J. Oshie), and Kuznetsov has a certain “ice water in his veins” tendency. It’s not his most famous goal, but Kuznetsov scored the game-winner in Game 7 against the Islanders here.

May 13, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

Ovechkin scored the first goal of Game 7, telling Lundqvist that it was going to be a long day. That was some fun trash talk, but it was Lundqvist who was laughing in the end, once again, after Derek Stepan scored the overtime game-winner. Holtby played admirably in defeat, as he’s been a reliable big-game performer for the Capitals for some time.

2017

May 10, second round: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

Remember when this was supposed to be the end of a window for Stanley Cup chances for Washington, or at least the Capitals’ best chances?

The Caps showed why they won a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy by gritting their way out of a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins, but that was forgotten once Washington lost this tight, heartbreaking game to Pittsburgh. This represented Fleury’s last moment of one-upping Ovechkin before he was Vegas-bound.

Trotz was shaken by the Game 7 loss and deflected questions about Ovechkin, etc. The next year became hockey history, but this sure seemed to put the wheels in motion for Trotz to leave, anyway, right?

2018

May 23, third round: Capitals 4, Lightning 0

Ovechkin scored what would stand as the game-winner just 62 seconds in, Tom Wilson collected two assists, and Andre Burakovsky‘s two second-period goals really iced this one (with Backstrom pitching in an empty-netter for good measure). Wilson also got into a fight, while Holtby managed a 29-save shutout. If there’s a BINGO board for the Capitals in Game 7 situations, then you’d probably win with that combination.

Who would have thought that the Lightning would suffer far greater heartache during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, by the way? (Too soon?)

***

As you can see, the Capitals’ big guns often show up in Game 7 contests, particularly Ovechkin and Holtby, yet they don’t always come away with those series wins. The Hurricanes might be wise to assume that they’ll only be able to contain, not stop, Ovechkin. The veteran star sure seems to begin his Game 7 performances with early goals, so that’s another situation to watch.

Overall, it should be a fun Game 7, even if it’s a familiar experience for the Capitals.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Stream here).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The name on the back matters: NHL is now marketing its stars

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Connor McDavid is eager to shrug off personal stats, awards and achievements and put the focus on his team in Edmonton.

Yet there he is on the cover of a video game or in a commercial for a bank.

Auston Matthews is the face of the franchise in Toronto. But he also got razzed by his Maple Leafs teammates for doing a stylish fashion photo shoot for GQ magazine.

”It was a lot of fun,” Matthews said. ”Kind of something that definitely got you out of your comfort zone.”

The rink for long decades has been the comfort zone for so many hockey players who put their full energy into the sport and are indoctrinated from a young age that the logo on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back.

That team-oriented part of hockey culture remains entrenched, but the NHL is finally beginning to market its stars as the NFL and NBA have done with great success.

As dynamic players like McDavid, Matthews and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau settled in Canadian markets and star power spread to smaller cities without much hockey tradition, marketing players and not just teams is essential to growing the NHL’s fan base. For a sport that generally sees its TV ratings drawn from fans of the two teams playing – and where the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t pull in nearly as much as the Super Bowl or NBA Finals – it’s a concerted effort to build up personalities and players’ brands to become more popular.

”It is a changing landscape,” said Judd Moldaver, Matthews’ agent and senior vice president of Wasserman Orr Hockey. ”Hockey players are such fantastic athletes and fantastic people that I believe the hybrid of playing for the logo on the front but also being able to optimize your individual situation. I think the two can coexist.”

Matthews, McDavid, Nashville’s P.K. Subban and other stars are sharing more personality than players of previous eras like Mario Lemieux and even Wayne Gretzky. No longer is it seen as selfish for Subban to host a late-night talk show or for Matthews to shoot a cellphone commercial.

”Why not try? Just because the person next to me doesn’t think that they can host their own show doesn’t mean that I can’t,” Subban said. ”What people have to understand is we’re at the rink three hours a day. We have a lot of time. We have days off, we have travel days and obviously there’s certain points in the schedule where you can’t do anything but hockey because of the way the schedule’s set up and the travel. But outside of hockey, a lot of times I don’t go home. I have meetings, I have different things that I’m doing. I have all these other interests.”

Showcasing those interests is part of the NHL’s shift. The league this season debuted a ”Skates Off” series of vignettes with a player from all 31 teams to show what they are like off the ice, including Jack Eichel being a guest DJ at a Buffalo classic rock radio station, Victor Hedman sharing his love of flying planes and Seth Jones showing his cooking talent.

”It’s nice to see those personalities come out,” said Nick Foligno, a teammate of Jones’ in Columbus. ”That’s how you grow the game. You look in other sports and the personalities come out, and that’s what fans are drawn to.”

NHL chief content officer and executive vice president Steve Mayer knows this. Since joining the league in late 2015 after 20 years at talent and sports giant IMG, he has helped lead the charge to put more focus on star players whose abilities and personalities could play a role in attracting younger fans who are attached to social media in the digital age.

”Other leagues do this, and we really don’t do it as well – we want to get better at it,” Mayer said. ”Other leagues it doesn’t really matter sometimes: You just tune in to watch the guy play. And we need to do that even more. … I want to be able to have fans even in (another) town (who) cannot wait to see Connor McDavid come to town because we have marketed him as one of our greatest players. I don’t know whether that happens enough.”

The NHL, Mayer said, has no interest in abandoning the team culture of hockey. But after a 2016 Magna Global study showed the average age of NHL fans rose 16 years over a span of 16 years – essentially stagnant – experts praised the league for trying to create more buzz among millennials and Generation Z.

”They recognize this, and they’re in a cultural shift, a cultural transformation within hockey,” said Stephanie Tryce, assistant professor of sports marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. ”Generation Z is about a lifestyle. They’re interested in things like social responsibility and they celebrate more of their identities than in the past, so that’s going to force hockey to continue to make inroads into other markets like the Hispanic/Latino market. It’s a market that you can’t ignore, but it’s also a market that historically hasn’t been in hockey. So you have to grow that.”

Matthews is at the center of that. His father is from California, his mother is from Mexico and he grew up in a nontraditional American hockey market in Arizona. Moldaver works closely with Matthews’ parents to chart a course for off-ice endeavors, from commercials and endorsement deals to philanthropic efforts, all of which continue to grow for the 21-year-old.

McDavid’s star began at an even earlier age, and the 2017 NHL MVP who has arguably surpassed Sidney Crosby as the greatest player in the world is finding his voice off the ice, too. When NFL Canada asked Rams and Patriots players at the Super Bowl who McDavid was, several thought maybe the prime minister or an actor. Work is ongoing to make him more recognizable outside hockey.

Hockey is such a team sport that individualism has for decades been frowned upon. Adidas senior director Dan Near said it’s a delicate balance to try to sell personalities but not stray too far from the team.

”I think there’s a fine line between doing it to promote yourself a little bit and being cocky, and I think we’ve got a lot of guys that do a great job of treading that line,” Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan said. ”You’re starting to see guys be promoted a little more, and it’s nice because then you get to see some individual personalities come out, and in a sport where you’re so often wearing helmets and gear, people don’t get to relate to you face-to-face.”

Teams have been reluctant to some of the league’s efforts sometimes until they see the final product. Mayer recalls showing owners and general managers clips of potential ideas and seeing the hesitancy for propping one player up before they understand the wide-ranging plan to give the NHL more exposure.

Initiatives like “Stanley Cup Confidential” where a player from each of the league’s 16 playoff teams shoots a daily cellphone video is another baby step.

”We are not here to break the culture. We’re just here to show that certain players are dynamic and have personality,” Mayer said. ”Players are starting gradually to see, you know what, it’s OK. I’m not disrupting the locker room and it’s OK to show personality and have some fun and smile.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Invigorated after Game 7 win, Bruins look to Blue Jackets

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BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins needed performances from up and down their roster to outlast the Toronto Maple Leafs in yet another seven-game slugfest between the Original Six franchises.

Boston will literally have just a day to enjoy its 5-1 win over Toronto in Game 7 on Tuesday night, with their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with Columbus set to open at TD Garden on Thursday night.

But that’s just fine with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy.

”I don’t mind the quick turnaround necessarily when you’re playing well,” Cassidy said. ”Our last two games we have played well. I thought the start of this series we had time off, we rested players. We had a couple of practices and all of a sudden maybe it’s too much information. I think they were overloading. This way they won’t be able to get so (overloaded).”

Cassidy is giving his players the day off Wednesday while his coaching staff breaks down film and puts together a game plan for the Blue Jackets. The plan is to do just a morning review with players Thursday before taking the ice for Game 1 in the evening.

Though Boston has the home ice-advantage in the series, the Bruins are expecting it to be tough defend against a team that stunned a Lightning team that tied an NHL record with 62 victories in the regular season.

Bruins fourth-line center Sean Kuraly, who came up big with a goal and an assist in Game 7 against Toronto, is a Dublin, Ohio native and well aware of the buzz Columbus has created around his home state.

”They’re playing really well and probably one of the hottest teams in the league right now after taking down Tampa,” Kuraly said. ”They’re going to be a really tough team.”

Boston went 2-1-0 against the Blue Jackets in the regular season with a 7-4 road loss back on March 12, a 2-1 overtime win in Boston March 16 and 6-2 victory in Columbus on April 2.

”The good news is we saw them three times late in the year. That’ll help with our preparation, should help with the players,” Cassidy said. ”We know they were physical against Tampa. They came after them. They got key saves. Power play was lights out. So, we got our hands full. Listen, we’re looking forward. I think it’ll be a good matchup for us. I think the teams are similarly built, so it should be a good series.

Part of Cassidy’s optimism about the quick turnaround stems from Boston’s health, which he said may be better than it’s been at any point this season.

Boston was also able to win in different ways against Toronto.

Bruins got eight goals in the first six games from stars Brad Marchand (four), Patrice Bergeron (two) and David Pastrnak (two). But they relied on third- and fourth-liners Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Marcus Johansson to key their offense in Game 7.

Boston also has been efficient on power plays, going 7 for 16 (43%) so far this postseason, while allowing only one short-handed goal. Meanwhile, Boston’s defense has been able to stop opponents’ chances, going 13 of 16 on penalty kills (81%), including a crucial 2 for 2 in Game 7.

And perhaps most importantly, netminder Tuukka Rask is playing some of his best hockey. He had 30-plus saves four times against Toronto, including stopping 32 of 33 shot attempts in Game in the series-deciding win.

”I personally felt good from the start of the series. I felt pretty good all year, obviously the workload hasn’t been too much so I feel fresh,” Rask said. ”It’s all about feeling confident, preparing yourself the right way, trusting your teammates. We battled hard all year and it showed again today.”

Coupled with the fact that the Bruins had to fend off elimination in Game 6 at Toronto to force the Game 7 and it adds up to a lot of confidence throughout their locker room.

”Relentless. Resilient. Whatever you want to call it,” Bruins forward Charlie Coyle said. ”We were down almost every part of that series and you battle back each game, tie it, pull things over and we pull it out when need be. … There’s never any panic in our game and that starts with our leadership and it’s huge to have those guys lead the way.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

Leafs have big decisions to make this summer

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Another year, another first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2013, the Leafs have been knocked out by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round three times. Last year, Toronto had a 3-2 lead against Boston in the deciding game, but they let it slip away. So what did they do? They added John Tavares in free agency and Jake Muzzin before the trade deadline. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So now what?

General manager Kyle Dubas will have his work cut out for him this summer. The Leafs have three key players scheduled to become restricted free agents in Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. They also have two important blueliners set to hit the open market in Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

Let’s start with the defense because we know that’s where the Leafs need the most work.

Leafs fans like to pin blame on Gardiner because he tends to make silly decisions with the puck at times, but nobody can deny that their defense is better with him than without him. The 28-year-old was clearly banged up in the playoffs, and that definitely affected his play. You’d have to think that his services will be in high demand on July 1st because there won’t be too many puck-moving defenders available this summer.

As for Hainsey, he played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season and playoffs. But how much longer can the Leafs continue rolling out a 38-year-old player on their top pairing? They need to upgrade on defense, which means Hainsey doesn’t come back or he gets pushed further down the lineup.

Dubas already has $75.759 million committed to the cap next season, which means that he’ll likely have less than $8 million in cap space. Marner alone will command way more than $8 million per season, so the Leafs will have to get creative when it comes to opening up dollars to re-sign players and to bring in new bodies.

Both Johnsson and Kapanen scored 20 goals and both surpassed the 40-point mark this season, but Johnsson (43 points) averaged under 14 minutes per game, while Kapanen (44 points) played over 16:30 per game. Could one of those two guys be on the move? Will it be Kapanen?

But the five players with expiring contracts mentioned above aren’t part of that $75-plus million cap hit heading into next season. Players under contract will have to move, too. 39-year-old Patrick Marleau is on the books for $6.25 million for one more year and he clearly isn’t the same player he once was. Can they find a taker for him? Dubas might have to send Kapanen to a team that’s willing to eat Marleau’s contract.

Nazem Kadri has three years left on his current contract at a very reasonable cap hit of $4.5 million. There’s no denying that his five-game suspension against the Bruins effected the outcome of the series. Has he worn out his welcome in Toronto? He’s still an effective player, but the trust between he and the organization may be fractured at this point.

Nikita Zaitsev‘s contract ($4.5 million AAV per year) forces him into a top four role that he probably isn’t suited for over an 82-game season plus playoffs. Other teams won’t be lining up to trade for that contract.

Dubas was the big winner last offseason, as he found a way to bring Tavares home. He also made a solid trade with Los Angeles for Muzzin and he was able to get Auston Matthews to sign a long-term extension, but this is the first major challenge he’ll experience as GM of the Leafs.

How will he respond?

MORE:
In a series full of questions, Mike Babcock short on answers
Bruins win yet another Game 7 versus Maple Leafs

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.